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Towards a decolonial ethic for building fair and equitable research partnerships

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”: Towards a decolonial ethic for building fair and equitable research partnerships

Dr Cathy Bollaert, Christian Aid

How do we build research partnerships with academics and development practitioners in a way that is fair, equitable and sustainable and how can we do it in a way that shifts power in research and promotes epistemological justice? This is the overarching question shaping the Research, Evidence and Learning (REL) team’s work at Christian Aid.

To do this, we first need to recognise and accept that there are diverse worldviews and ways of knowing and constructing the social world around us. Although knowledge production is currently dominated by western and colonial systems of meaning–making, the way we, in the western world and in academia, interpret and organise the world does not necessarily translate to how others, in the majority world, might interpret the world around them.

This matters because it informs how social, political and economic systems are built, and similarly, how development is ‘done’. For example, a racist worldview coupled with beliefs in divine chosen-ness, social Darwinism and capitalism (among others) led to the institutionalisation of Apartheid in South Africa and a  deeply divided and unequal society based on race (Bollaert, 2019). Similarly, the Sustainable Development Goals are largely informed by a western worldview defining what is seen to be ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ (Ranawana, 2023). However, this silences other ways of seeing the world. Clearly illustrating this is how agro-pastoralist communities in Ethiopia define wealth in terms of livestock, land, machinery and number of wives (Haced Consultancy,  2023), a sharp contrast to capitalist interpretations of wealth upon which global development goals are based. This undoubtedly matters for how we approach development and its solutions.

Therefore, in order to shift power in research and build fair and equitable research partnerships, first, these worldviews (and colonial logics) need to be deconstructed and other ways of knowing the world must be centred. This requires a decolonial research ethic that includes deepening our self-awareness and reflexive practice. Dr Anupama Ranawana (2023) explores this further in her position paper on research and evidence cultures in Christian Aid.

Secondly, we need to recognise that the current research ecosystem does not lend itself to shifting power in research and building more equitable research partnerships. Consequently, we need an innovative model for decolonising research in international development. Such a model requires:

  1. An ethical framework that moves beyond a narrow interpretation of ethics often found within academia and which largely focuses on procedural issues such as anonymity and consent to a wider interpretation of ethics, which promotes justice in knowledge production and which enables diverse voices and diverse knowledges to be included in the research (Cascant-Sempere, Aliyu & Bollaert, 2022). Moreover, this framework needs to be informed by development values for inclusivity. Drawing on their experience of doing research and evaluation in international development, TearFund and Christian Aid co-edited an ethics guide that explores key ethical principles at each stage of the research cycle in a more inclusive way (Daehnhardt & Bollaert, 2021). The guide is accompanied by several tools to help apply the principles in practice and are available in multiple languages including English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
  2. Decentralising the research processes to co-design research and provide ethical review with hybrid teams that comprise both development practitioners and academics from countries in which the research is taking place (Bollaert, Aliyu & Cascant-Sempere, 2022). This should include centralising local communities across the research cycle from design to communicating impact and dissemination. It also requires decentralising research budgets. Such an approach allows academics to bring theory to the practice, while practitioners who have a nuanced understanding of the context, can contribute to knowledge building. Moreover, it provides scope for local communities to determine whose knowledge and whose ethic should inform the research. For example, in academia it is widely accepted that research on gender-based violence (GBV) generally should not include victims of GBV. However, when applying a decolonial ethic to such research, it raises the question of who gets to decide who should or shouldn’t be included in the research and therefore whose values count in research (Narayanan & Bharadwaj, 2019). By creating hybrid research teams and ethics panels, decision-making power is shifted to those on whom the research is focused.
  3. Including perspectives from research based in the global south to inform our literature reviews, theoretical frameworks and research designs, publishing in global south journals,  and making our publications freely available (Cascant-Sempere, Aliyu & Bollaert, 2022). This raises several challenges including the question of what counts as knowledge and how other forms of knowledge such as oral sources can be included in research. A particularly complex challenge is that of language and how we can both cite and publish research in more diverse languages in a sector that is dominated by English language and thought.

Applying these principles and approaches is fundamental to building fair and equitable research partnerships and for shifting power in research. A failure to do so will result in reproducing knowledge hegemonies and knowledge production systems that reinforce western worldviews and colonial logics that fail to meet the needs and reality of the majority world.


Bollaert, C. (2019). Reconciliation and Building a  Sustainable Peace: Competing Worldviews in  South Africa and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan.

Bollaert, C., Aliyu, T. &  Cascant Sempere, M.J. (2022) Embedding research ethics into an international development programme: a case study of Evidence and Collaboration for Inclusive Development (ECID) in Nigeria. Community Development Journal, 58: 1, pp 121–135.

Cascant Sempere, M.J.; Aliyu, T. & Bollaert, C. (2022) Towards Decolonising Research Ethics: From One-off Review Boards to Decentralised North–South Partnerships in an International Development Programme. Educ. Sci. 12: 236

Daehnhardt, M. and Bollaert, C. (2021) Doing Research Ethically – Principles and Practices for International Development Practitioners and Evaluators. Tearfund and Christian Aid.

Haced Consultancy. (2023). Strengthening Social Protection Mechanisms in South Ari Woreda: Community-Based Perspective. Christian Aid.

Narayanan, P. and Bharadwaj, S. (2019) Whose ethics count? Ethical issues in community development and action research with communities facing stigmatisation, in S. Banks, P. Westoby eds, Ethics, Equity and Community Development, Policy Press, Bristol, pp. 103–122.

This blog reflects the views of the author. Dr Cathy Bollaert, was a participant in the DSA webinar on NGO and researcher collaboration. If you’d like to share your views, please email us.